Today in Denby

So:  even though Anthony Lane already reviewed it, New Yorker alter-critic David Denby felt compelled, for some mysterious reason, to weigh in on the sex-addiction drama Shame.  (As did I.  Hee hee! For the record, I think Lane misses the point rather spectacularly, the point being sexual indulgence as the playing out of sexual damage.  The “tidal wave of a night” he describes is crammed and joyless for a very clear reason – it’s a response to the fight Brandon has with his sister.)

Why is Denby upset?  “It’s very possible that a serious movie could be made about sex addiction—say, if the man, in pursuit of his obsessions, had a family that he tore up along the way. But this hero is single. And, if you accept the terms of the movie, he’s an isolated sufferer, haplessly driven, mainly hurting himself. But I can’t accept those terms. The solemnity of “Shame”—the moral disapproval, the grim misery, the lowering music—is very strange, a sombre form of titillation which congratulates the audience for its higher values while giving it plenty of handsome flesh to look at…It’s a movie about a creepy form of martyrdom: The religious overtones of ritual self-abasement are inescapable.”

Well, Mr. Denby, maybe for you.  I’m pretty familiar with religious overtones, and I thought this film hewed much closer to humanity than to God.  But let’s get to the fun  part:  David Denby, getting in a huff over a film about sex addiction, plucking the mystic chords of memory to recall this bit I once wrote…

In January of 2004, David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker, published a memoir entitled American Sucker.  It chronicled his disastrous post-divorce affair with the stock market, an affair that cost him nearly a million dollars.  It also gave some account of his life during that time, and included in that account were three paragraphs about a brief, if intense, involvement with Internet pornography.  The fallout?  I’ll let this exchange, found on the Australian website, suffice:

*            *            *

Geraldine Doogue: Have you found there’s a genuine awkwardness in your own set about this book?

David Denby: Yes, some have welcomed it and realized that I needed to write it to sort of put all this behind me, that it was even, pardon the expression, an act of therapy.  And others I think may be a little bit embarrassed, but I think that’s their fault. I think they’re being priggish, and I also think …in some of the response here, I’ve been punished for admitting desires that other people also feel but don’t want to admit, because they think it’s in poor taste.  Other literary folk – for instance, some of the reviewers and journalists and critics – have responded in that way.

Geraldine Doogue: Are you talking particularly about the – not much in your book – about your temporary interest in Internet porn?

David Denby: It’s three paragraphs.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes, it’s three paragraphs, quite so.

David Denby: I think now that…

Geraldine Doogue: And yet there’s a lot of material worldwide about it.
  [Author’s note:  This is a very polite way of putting it.  A cursory web search shows that those three paragraphs got mentioned in reviews appearing in The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Chicago Sun-Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, and The Houston Chronicle.  And that doesn’t even begin to get at the quantity of buzz those paragraphs produced on the Internet.]

David Denby: If I had gone back, I think I might’ve taken it out.  And it wasn’t that I wasn’t warned.  I mean, the publisher said, “Are you sure you want this?”  And I said, “It’s part of the story; it’s a man coming untethered; it’s three paragraphs.”  It’s funny and there isn’t…I don’t know a single man of my acquaintance – and these are all pretty high powered men – who hasn’t at least looked at Internet pornography.  Because it’s so easily available and… People were titillated by it, I guess, because of the notion of a writer who had earlier written a book about Western classics and who wrote for the New Yorker magazine looking at dirty pictures for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2000.  They acted as if it were a big deal, when of course it isn’t.

*            *            *

Of course it isn’t a big deal.  We’re all sophisticated, mature people here, who understand that there certainly isn’t anything immoral or unnatural about indulging in a little online T&A the way you did…you pervert.  See, it’s okay.  It’s normal.  But just try admitting to it in the same tone of voice as you might admit to occasionally binging on Kettle Chips.  How funny was it when Chris Farley needled David Spade in Tommy Boy after he caught Spade communing with himself?  How perfect was his final, smirking, shot:  “Sinner.”

Denby wrote a book about the stock market, tried to slip in porn as a throwaway, and didn’t get away with it.  “But it wasn’t a book about porn!” he cries.  “It was a detail, shown to illustrate a point!  Nothing more!”  Tough.  You don’t bring up the topic of naked ladies performing sexual acrobatics and then move right along to your next exhibit.  The audience won’t follow; they’re going to linger awhile.  Whatever else you can say about porn, when it comes to commanding attention, it works.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s a bigger deal than Denby says it is.


  1. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    You don’t bring up the topic of naked ladies performing sexual acrobatics and then move right along to your next exhibit.

    Speaking of which, are you still planning to post your Percy presentation online? Is any other member of the Kollektiv going to share his/her/their work? Maybe as a Christmas gift to the Internet-at-large? No pressure or nothin, just curious.

    • I second this, Angelico (and I love your name).

      • Matthew Lickona says

        Can’t a guy be swamped by an overwhelming sense of futility and depression in peace? I can’t speak for everyone else, but I need to record the thing and make a YouTube slideshow, which I don’t know how to do. And that kind of effort for something so minor feels downright embarrassing at this point. But you were kind enough to ask, so…

        • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

          Mr Lickona, you were never on the hook to begin with, but you’re even farther off it now: Ellen Finnigan digs my moniker (Thanks, Ms Finnigan; I come by it honestly!), which suddenly makes a lot of things in life seem less important. Your Percy presentation is one of them. So go ahead and watch movies/futz around with Photoshop/sip wine (or whatever it is they pay you to do) guilt-free.

          Of course, that’s only as far as I am concerned. Wouldn’t presume to speak for Ms Finnigan. But I also wouldn’t presume to dictate the best use of anyone else’s time (excepting offspring and employees).

          • Wait, Matt, don’t you have kids? I’m sorry, but that means that “I don’t know how” is not going to fly, as far as excuses go. Children exist to teach their parents about technology, after all. That’s why I want them: I imagine it would be like having my own, personal IT department right here at home.

            • Matthew Lickona says

              You are absolutely correct, Ellen, but my talk is titled Tillie and Mac and Belly to Back: Percy and Pornography from The Moviegoer to The Thanatos Syndrome. So I’ve been hesitant to say, “Here kids, fix this up for me.”

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